New mother Mette Jensen was pleased to be back among her colleagues at the office when her maternity leave ended.
But when the onset of coronavirus brought a stay-home order only two weeks later, the marketing manager at a global food company found herself back at her Dubai Marina apartment.
Eight months on, Ms Jensen continues to work remotely, part of a global army of employees who will likely work outside the office for the rest of their careers.
Her Media City employer was already encouraging staff to work from home for two days a week before the pandemic hit.
“Working from home was bittersweet,” said Ms Jensen, 35.
“It was amazing being able to spend more time with my daughter, but I had also really looked forward to seeing my colleagues again.
"I love what I do and was ready to get back into it, so being told to work from home felt odd.”
Firms home in on new working practices in Covid-19 age
As ride-hailing platform Careem adopts a remote-first policy for its staff in 14 countries, more companies are weighing up the possibility of encouraging staff to stay home when possible.
JLT-based grocery delivery app elGrocer operated a “work from anywhere” option for its team – and flourished during Covid-19 movement restrictions.
Eighty-two per cent of people expect to benefit from more flexible work-from-home policies after the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey that analysed the effects of the pandemic on work culture globally.
Meanwhile, 71 per cent of those surveyed said they want to continue working from home, at least part-time, Microsoft revealed in its Work Trend Index report published in July.
According to research carried out in the UK, nine in 10 people who have worked from home during the pandemic would like to continue to do so in some form.
Thousands of people were surveyed three times between April and June by academics at Cardiff and Southampton universities.
While output is central to the debate for some companies reviewing WFH policies, Ms Jensen, from Denmark, said reduced distractions made her much more productive in a situation she describes as “an absolute gift”, both as an employee and a parent.
“I have always been lucky to work for companies that encouraged flexible working," she said. "It’s something I find really important when choosing an employer.
“There’s no commuting so when you’re done working you can immediately get stuck into family time. It made the transition back to work much easier.”
Even when the pandemic is over, many predict a flexible, hybrid approach will win out.
Remote operations can widen recruitment net
Thanj Kugananthan, founder of Dubai consultancy Visible HR, believes WFH will become a more prevalent and acceptable policy.
“However, most companies are likely to still expect staff to come in regularly to an office a few times a week rather than every day as previously,” she said.
“The drivers for companies are increased employee engagement and also to not be restricted by location when it comes to hiring scarce skilled roles, which are not required to be in the office.”
Mouteih Chaghlil, chief executive of cloud consultation company Bespin Global MEA, said they put in place a WFH strategy from March 8. Staff returned gradually on May 3 with 30 per cent capacity, in line with UAE regulations.
Mr Chaghlil said Bespin adapted to the “modern work environment" long before the pandemic and was a “strong believer in a remote work environment that supports employees' productivity”.
"We did notice a small impact on productivity levels during the early stages of lockdown, however, this was understandable given that everyone was affected emotionally, socially and physically," he said.
“A week or so later, we adapted to the new working environment and productivity levels were back on track.
“Our culture promotes innovation, flexibility and autonomy. Therefore, our employees have a choice to work from home or anywhere given their direct managers are informed.”
Key to that remote working relationship is professional trust.
Trust vs productivity - how does it work?
While UK media recently reported increased demand for controversial staff activity monitoring software such as ActivTrak and Time Doctor, many employers will have faith in recruitment choices – and proven WFH output.
Mimi Nicklin, a Dubai-based former strategic director and coach turned author, called for empathetic leadership.
“Trust is foundational for our ability to succeed as a group,” she said.
“We may be separated into our own homes but when there is trust underpinning our work, we see exceptional performance as a group of individuals with the same vision and goal.
“When it is trusted we are all running in the same direction, we do.”
Ms Jensen said her company “trusts their people 100 per cent”.
“As long as the work gets done, it never feels like someone is watching over your shoulder,” she said.
“In return, we all work harder to make sure they never feel trust is abused. It’s a two-way street and builds a sense of personal responsibility.”
Ms Kugananthan goes a step further, suggesting “when you give employees choice and greater flexibility, that always results in greater productivity”.
“With WFH, more reliance will be placed on outputs, in other words, productivity rather than face/office time, hence performance and productivity should improve,” she said.
Workplaces primed for a flexible future
Haider Hussain, a partner with immigration law firm Fragomen, sees companies showing plenty of flexibility and compassion to individual situations – and more understanding when reviewing performance.
“The overall thought process has changed,” said Mr Hussain, whose company already had WFH flexibility, now evolved to a flexidesk policy allowing employees to choose a laptop location.
Companies, he said, generally monitor staff activity through regular catch-ups, scheduled team meetings and reviews through videoconferencing tools, while many have internal IT to track project progress.
“There is more focus on individual ownership of responsibilities,” said Mr Hussain, who predicts a split of office/WFH going forward in the UAE.
On a human level, Ms Jensen recognises challenges such as reduced colleague interaction and finding a “clean cut” between work and home-life, but said they are outweighed by commutes exchanged for family time.
“Our company has been great at keeping everyone engaged, ensuring we all take time to connect on a personal level,” said Ms Jensen, who hopes remote working remains.
“Having experienced both extremes, I’m convinced a mix is the way forward.
“This region historically hasn’t been the most open to this kind of thing, but hopefully this time has shown companies it’s a system that works and can lead to even higher productivity – and a happier workforce.”